Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church Subject of Madison Professor's Talk
By Christine Lee
April 13, 2016
The at-times thorny relationship between the Catholic Church in the U.S. and state authorities was the topic of a program Sunday led by a Seton Hall University professor at a Harding church.
Speaking in front of a group of around 20 people, Madison resident and former Councilwoman JoRenee Formicola, a professor of political science, spoke about issues of clerical sexual abuse in a program at the First Presbyterian Church of New Vernon, Lee’s Hill Road.
Formicola’s 2014 book “Clerical Sexual Abuse: How the Crisis Changed U.S. Catholic Church-State Relations,” analyzes the struggle between church leaders and civil authorities in dealing with the treatment of clergy members accused of sexual abuse.
Published by Palgrave-Macmillan, the book is written based on grand jury hearings, criminal investigations, civil lawsuits, as well as news and media reports. The book explains the personal, political, legal and institutional dimensions of the crisis.
In it, Formicola, whose expertise deals with religion and politics, referred to the “dark side” of clergy in the Catholic Church.
“It’s something that continues,” she said, adding that to many, sex abuse in the church by clergy comes as a “shock” because to many, clergy are trusted people.
Formicola not only focused on the high-profile 2002 sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston, but also how the church has dealt with abuse allegations historically.
Going back, she said, as the church was established, laws or “canons” were established to deal with pedophile priests but the abuse itself wasn’t recognized as a crime. The church treated the incidents as sins committed by priests.
Formicola detailed that when modern criminal laws began to “catch up” to canon law in the church, there were conflicts. In particular, who should deal with the abuse allegations and what power the state should have over church settlements.
It has long been the churches that manage clergy, keep records and give priest assignments. Therefore, she noted, it is the church’s responsibility to carry out religious penalties and handle its financial affairs.
But it is the responsibility of the state to “protect public safety and child welfare” and to investigate and prosecute criminal activities.
The earliest case in her research of sexual abuse allegations against a Catholic priest comes from Lafayette, La., in 1984 and the case of Father Gilbert Gauthe. Formicola described Gauthe as a “man’s man” who would invite boys into his summer cabin, only to molest them.
Gauthe’s case was kept quiet by the church “for a long time” and it was only when a family member of one of the victims sued the Catholic Church that the records were unsealed.
In 1992, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) adopted voluntary guidelines dealing with sexual abuse.
They included removing and evaluating priests, but all the reporting was kept confidential and priests were quietly sent off to “repent.”
Then in 2002, cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests were uncovered. It was revealed that the Diocese of Boston had known about abuses committed by Father John Geoghan and others on multiple occasions.
The investigation by reporters from the Boston Globe was the basis for the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.” As a result, Formicola said the state of Massachusetts declared that church records were available for public inspection.
The Globe investigation sparked similar probes around the nation and the world. It touched locally when a former priest at St. Joseph Church in Mendham, James Hanley, was defrocked for having abused multiple young boys.
The scandal in Boston had several ramifications nationwide, including limitations on consent and confidentiality agreements in many states, she noted. Civil oversight of church actions and finances was also instituted, along with legislative changes to protect children.
The changes included longer statutes of limitations, reporting requirements in all states, the church no longer being exempt in reporting and specific definitions of abuse crafted.
In 2002, Formicola said the church put out a “Charter to Protect Children,” but to the Vatican, the zero tolerance charter applies only to the U.S. and should be in accordance to U.S. civil laws.
Formicola said in her presentation that the biggest issue facing the Catholic Church is financial.
As a result of lawsuits, many dioceses have filed for bankruptcy, plus there is fear that the state could dispose of assets and a loss of government funding. These include Medicare accepted at Catholic hospitals and Pell grants at Catholic universities.
As for what the future holds on dealing with abuse in the church, Formicola said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the future.
Contact Staff Writer Christine Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org . Find her on Twitter @Cleespot.